Monday, May 26, 2014

The 9/11 Souvenirs

The opening of the 9/11 Museum has predictably generated a stream of media coverage, Internet responses, and images on social media. Not so predictably, the long-awaited event has initiated another, smaller, stream of reviews related to the museum’s gift shop and its souvenir merchandise. This second stream greatly differed in tone and attitude from an overwhelmingly supportive and positive reaction to the Memorial itself. “The 9/11 Museum’s absurd gift shop”, called it an article in New York Post.  “Just how crass is the 9/11 Museum’s gift shop?” asks the website Gothamist, citing the cheese plate in the shape of the continental US with hearts indicating the places of terrorist attacks. Some visitors go further, questioning the very presence of shop on the site.

The gift shop is, of course, there to stay. The museum’s spokesman sites the financial needs, and notes that “many of our guests from the 9/11 community have visited the shop and purchased a keepsake from their historic experience”.  The truth is that a gift shop, just like cafeterias and restrooms, is an expected component of any museum, including the ones devoted to tragic and sensitive historical events. The real question to ask is what kind of merchandise is acceptable, and what is not acceptable, in these very special circumstances.

The idea of a souvenir of 9/11 is almost an oxymoron. After all, we all remember that day too well, whether we witnessed the tragedy directly or watched it unfolded on television screens. What kind of object is needed to keep memory of this already unforgettable event?

When such object is conceived as a functional item (like the above mentioned cheeseboard), the very idea of combining the “sacred memory” with a trivial use renders the object distasteful. The memory is trivialized by the suggestion of a banal everyday activity. A poster with the 9/11 graphics is OK, but the same image on a shower curtain is not.  A postcard is fine, but a placemat is not.  The 9/11 toy fire trucks and stuffed search dogs were criticized not only because of their inappropriateness for children, but also because of the association with game, playing, and the overall context of a toy box where such items usually end up.

Then, there is an issue with decorative pieces of jewelry and clothing.  Vanity items with 9/11 imagery, like earrings, tie pins, scarves, tend to belittle the memory of the event they are attempting to commemorate. Once again, the context is wrong: the memory cannot be worn in the earlobe, affixed to a lapel, or get tied around one’s neck. One exception might be the T-shirt, a quintessential American typology, which since 1960s served as people’s personal billboard for expressing their opinions, preferences, and memories.

In my opinion, 9/11 memorial merchandise should be devoid of all unrelated functionalism. The souvenir will be interpreted as an abstract object, a psychological “container”, where the users could put their own personal memories and emotions. Imagine a series of cubes, like miniature memorials, crafted out of marble, bent steel wire, glass…

But would people buy those metaphysical objects? That’s another story.